Going the extra mile

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Head of Prep, Will Dunlop, writes for Angels and Urchins magazine

Choosing a school for a child who needs additional help is not easy. I should know. As a parent I have had to do it myself and in my professional life I have met hundreds of parents in the same position. The choice can appear baffling, but if you approach it rationally you can maximise your chance of finding the best school for your child.

From the start, be open-minded. You need a school where your child will be both supported and challenged, where they will be happy and where they can thrive. Remember that you are choosing for them, not you.  Make every effort to understand as much as you can about your child’s difficulties. A formal diagnosis from an educational psychologist helps, but diagnosing specific learning difficulties in young children can be problematic. Whether or not you have a diagnosis, the important thing is to understand what it is that your child finds difficult and how it affects them.  A good way to do this is to be alert to frustration. What is your child doing when they get frustrated? Is there a pattern? Don’t just rely only on the evidence of your own eyes: consult others. They will have a more dispassionate view of your child, so they might well spot things that you miss. This may mean hearing things about your child that you find difficult at first, but remember that it is only by understanding their difficulty you can start to make things better for them.

Try to find schools that will be sympathetic towards your child. Cast your net wide. Many London parents assume that there must be sufficient choice in the capital (which is not entirely true), and thus miss out on the opportunities available at a huge range of outstanding inclusive schools beyond the M25. Think about where you might gather informed opinion. There are several excellent guides available. A good school placement agency may be able to help, or perhaps you know other parents in a similar position. For specific difficulties there are organisations from whom you can seek advice. The Council for the Registration of Schools Teaching Dyslexic Pupils (CReSTeD) maintains an excellent online register of accredited schools, for example. Your aim at this stage is to make a shortlist of schools to visit. Even if you have a favourite, comparison is important.

When you visit, try to work out the extent to which support for those who learn differently is integrated into the culture of the school. The very best schools don’t just have excellent individual support, they have classroom staff who differentiate effectively for individuals. Look at where the learning support department is located: is it on the fringes or at the heart of the school? Is the SENCo highly regarded?  What is the pastoral care like? Will the staff be able to nurture your child’s potentially fragile self-esteem?

You need to be honest with the school.  Tell them what you know about your child’s difficulties, and what you don’t know. Schools will be honest about their ability to support specific issues; if they say they are not able to cope with your child’s needs, they are almost certainly right. Look instead for somewhere that wants to know your child, that has or is prepared to develop the expertise to support them.

Once you have narrowed your shortlist down, try to involve your child in the final choice. If you can get your child to an open day, or better still a taster day, you will soon find out whether they actually like it. There is no escaping the fact that school is especially hard for children with specific learning difficulties, so an environment in which they feel valued and supported is especially important. In my experience, children are exceptionally good judges of this.

Forget any misconceptions you may have about academic standards in more inclusive schools. They may not head the league tables, but the standards of teaching and learning you will find in schools with an enlightened attitude to SEN are second to none. Teachers in such schools understand differentiation better than anyone, and they have to teach imaginatively.

Finally, remember that the workplace of the 21st century demands people who can think divergently and overcome problems in creative and imaginative ways. Children with SEN can do that; they have been doing it all their lives. The best school for your child is the one that empowers them to be themselves. I hope you find it.